Celebrating Stoppard

Rogue Theatre takes on Arcadia with great success

Playwright Tom Stoppard is just so damn smart.  He's an observer, a thinker, a scholar and a seeker who is not afraid to ask tough questions, spilling them across the stage in the most clever and engaging ways.

So it makes sense that the Rogue Theatre embraces Stoppard's play Arcadia with great enthusiasm and commendable skill.

This is not an easy play.  Stoppard pulls threads from science, mathematics, history, physics and poetry and miraculously spins them into double stories that play out in the same location almost 200 years apart. It's a play of ideas, and if you prefer your theater to be light, hilarious, and musical, this will challenge you. 

But if you accept the challenge, you will be rewarded with an impeccably put-together piece that will send you out of the theater in as ebullient a mood on an intellectual level as you would leave spirited and light-hearted from a well-done musical comedy.

And really, not just on an intellectual level. For in probing as he does our plight as beings who want to know things, but must reckon with limitations, Stoppard doesn't despair. Our inquisitiveness is as much a part of our nature as our drive for sex and pleasure, and just as clumsy at times.  Even knowing that death will claim us—and now understanding that even our universe will ultimately die as well—we carry on, because it's who we are.

In a brilliant convention, Stoppard tells two stories, the first of which takes place in the early years of the 19th century.  The setting is Sidley Park in Derbyshire, and at the opening we are introduced to academic Septimus Hodge (Ryan Parker Knox) who tutors 13-year-old Thomasina (Gabriella De Brequet), who, it turns out, has a precocious mind far ahead of her time. There are many visitors at the manor, including a poet (but not much of one, in Septimus’ opinion) and his wife, and we find out later that the poet Lord Byron is also a guest. Lady Croom (Kathryn Kellner Brown) is all atwitter because her gardener/landscaper is insisting on turning her groomed grounds into a gothic mess, including a hermitage, reinstituting the look of nature before it took on the tone of an ordered culture.  (Of course, that this regression is being orchestrated is an irony that Stoppard doesn't miss.)

The second story also takes place at Sidley Park, in the same room, where literary scholars have gathered to try to piece together events that will provide new information in their fields of study. Bernard Nightingale (Joseph McGrath) is a Byron scholar who, based on various bits and pieces of information at the site, pulls together a theory (and publishes it) that we, having had the advantage of watching what had happened in the time and place he references, know to be false. Hannah Jarvis (Patty Gallagher), a colleague of Nightingale's, is researching the history of the gardens, in particular, the hermitage.  Again, her theories are based on fragments, including a sketch of a hermit found in Thomasina's papers, which we know she drew there as a joke.

In the meantime, Valentine (Matt Bowdren), a descendant of the Croom family, is a mathematician amazed at the questions raised by Thomasina in her algebra notebook and how, although the equation she sought actually exists, she could have never devised it because she didn't have a calculator. 

In such a manner the stories unfold, taking us back and forth from the present to the past, and finally, simultaneously occupying the stage.  The set is simple, designed according to Stoppard's specifications, the focal point being a large table with two chairs. Over the course of the play, books, letters, workbooks, journals and even a laptop computer coexist atop the table, a blend of what is known and what is speculated. It's a strong visual statement and underscores Stoppard's storytelling.

Director Cynthia Meier has managed to deliver Stoppard's multiple themes and storylines that cross centuries with clarity and with as much momentum as can be mustered in Stoppard's stretched-out style.  She has gathered a solid cast. The players can wrap both their mouths and their heads around dense ideas and language and—very important—can deliver Stoppard's humor. Much of Stoppard's appeal lies in his wit and wordplay, which not only amuses us, but keeps us in the game.

Fostering emotional attachment to his characters is not really Stoppard's primary intention as his stories evolve, but for successful storytelling we need to feel some connection. We probably attach emotionally more to Septimus and Thomasina than any others in the play, largely because we see them over time and we find out what happened to them. They are the people the moderns study. De Brequet and Knox give us attractive, likable characters that help anchor us in our far-reaching escapades.

It's not necessary to understand entropy, the second law of thermodynamics or chaos theory to appreciate this show.  But Stoppard is not shy about addressing such ideas as well as themes like reason versus romanticism, the nature of knowledge and of time, and the relative importance of science, art, personalities and facts.

But it's not all dreary discussion and debate.  In fact, Stoppard gives us a glimpse of what might be our redemption in the midst of our theories and proofs and equations.  Hannah says, "It's all trivial—your grouse, my hermit, Bernard's Byron.  Comparing what we are looking for misses the point.  It's wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise, we're going out the same way we came in." 

Toward the end of the play, as Septimus begins to understand the consequences of Thomasina's theories, he despairs: "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore."  Thomasina replies, "Then we will dance."

There is no raw emotion flooding the stage at the Rogue.  There rarely is.  But if the way to a man's heart can be through his stomach, perhaps the way to an intellectual's heart is through his mind.  Arcadia forges such a path.

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